Notes on the Simpson transcript

Having read the transcript of the Senate Judiciary Committee interview of Fusion GPS principal Glenn Simpson by Senate Judiciary Committee staff, I want to post a few notes and observations on the transcript. The partially redacted transcript was posted online yesterday by Senator Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein posted the transcript here. The transcript runs 312 pages.

All we have is the transcript itself. Feinstein omitted exhibits and other matter related to the transcript. Mollie Hemingway provides her 10 takeaways in a good column at The Federalist. Here are my own, several of which overlap with Hemingway’s (and John’s in the adjacent post).

1. Simpson was threatened with a subpoena. Instead he appeared voluntarily under a written understanding regarding the parameters of the interview. He was not placed under oath. Rather, he was reminded that false statement to Congress are punishable under federal law. He was represented by counsel during the interview. Republican and Democratic committee lawyers took alternate one-hour turns questioning Simpson.

2. The transcript is of interest because of Simpson’s role in retaining British former MI6 man Christopher Steele and procuring his preparation of the memos that make up the Steele Dossier for the Clinton campaign. The memos feature salacious allegations from anonymous Russian sources regarding Donald Trump and the Trump campaign.

3. We want to know whether the Steele Dossier was used by the FBI to support FISA applications for warrants that led to FBI surveillance on the Trump presidential campaign. Andrew McCarthy’s current NRO column on the Steele Dossier is must reading in this context. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes has only now obtained the FISA warrant application and other related materials that he has sought since this past August. The Wall Street Journal noted editorially yesterday: “House Intel Chairman Devin Nunes had threatened to hold FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in contempt if they refused to comply.” Something tells me that the documents are unlikely to vindicate the FBI and the Department of Justice.

4. Simpson/Fusion GPS was retained by the general counsel of the Clinton presidential campaign to provide research on Trump. In his testimony Simpson quibbles about the use of the term “opposition research” to describe his work. His quibbles on this point do not point to his credibility as a witness.

5. Simpson in turn hired Steele in April/May 2016 to provide human intelligence on Trump’s Russian connections. Simpson generated the memos that make up the Steele Dossier based on his conversations with Russian sources.

6. Why should those Russian sources be believed, rather than discounted as friends of Vladimir Putin volunteering disinformation? Simpson addresses this point repeatedly, mostly in response to questions posed by Democratic counsel. See, e.g., pages 89, 93, 95, 147, 148-149, 162, 235, 239, and 278.

7. Simpson credits Steele’s expertise and superhuman powers to identify disinformation. He relates Steele’s comments on the subject at page 239: “What he said was disinformation is an issue in my profession, that is a central concern and that we are trained to spot disinformation, and if I believed this was disinformation or I had concerns about that I would tell you that and I’m not telling you that. I’m telling you that I don’t believe this is disinformation.” What is to be said? This is laughable.

8. From the time of his first memo in June 2016, Steele is alarmed by what his Russian sources tell him. Steele believes that the Russian government holds compromising information on Trump and that Trump is being blackmailed. He believes he must report his “information” to the FBI. Though Steele himself is a British citizen, is on a mission to save the republic. He arranges a meeting with the FBI (the name of the agent is redacted) the following month in Rome. According to Simpson, this has nothing to do with Steele’s work for him and the Clinton campaign. See, e.g..g, pages 168, 225-226 (“the point I was making earlier which was this was something that I considered to be something that Chris took on on his own based on his professional obligations and not something that was part of my project”).

9. Steele met with the FBI to present his “information” again in mid- to late September 2016 (pages 171-172, 175). At this meeting, according to Simpson, Steele was told the FBI had verified some component of his (Steele’s) reports through a source in the Trump campaign. However, the FBI had no source inside the Trump campaign. Simpson’s reference was to George Papadoploulos’s drunken musings to the Australian ambassador, subsequently reported by the ambassador to the FBI. Mollie Hemingway takes up this point, but it has been widely reported by others including CNN.

10. Simpson and Steele conducted off-the-record briefings on the Steele Dossier (the memos) in late September/early October 2016. Michael Isikoff picked up theor story for Yahoo News and David Corn for Mother Jones. At that time Simpson and Steele were pitching the FBI investigation and the FBI investigation figured prominently in their stories.

11. Republican counsel questioning Simpson focused mostly on Simpson’s simultaneous work with the BakerHostetler law firm on behalf of the Russian company Prevezon in support of its defense of the money laundering/asset forfeiture case brought by the Untied States (in the case underlying the Magnitsky Act). Simpson’s work with BakerHostetler brough him into contact with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya immediately before and after she met held the infamous meeting with Donald Trump, Jr. et al. at Trump Tower. Simpson’s job was to provide research undermining the credibility of Bill Browder, the proponent of the Magnitsky Act in the United States and similar laws elsewhere.

12. As for his work with BakerHostetler, Simpson says (page 184): “I was acting — lawyers hire me to do research for them, the research is their property or their client’s property, it’s not mine. So if they want me to provide it to somebody else, it’s their information.” This seems a more straightforward account than the one Simpson provides for Steele’s work on Trump. The use of the Steele Dossier by the Clinton campaign is absent from Simpson’s testimony.

13. Simpson presents himself as a master of the literature on Trump and Russia, but he asserts as a fact that the Republican Party changed its platform to benefit Russia at the GOP convention (page 170). In his Washington Examiner column this past November, Byron York characterized this proposition as “one of the enduring misconceptions of the Trump-Russia affair.”

14. Simpson’s testimony should be read against his January 2 New York Times op-ed column (written with Peter Fritsch). I find Simpson to be a misleading spokesman for himself in the interview and his column. In the column, for example, Simpson asserts: “We don’t believe the Steele dossier was the trigger for the F.B.I.’s investigation into Russian meddling.” Reading the transcript of Simpson’s testimony, however, one would reasonably conclude that Steele and his dossier were instrumental to the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign.

15. One of Simpson’s attorneys emphasizes the sensitivity of Simpson’s testimony. He asserts toward the end of the interview: “Somebody’s already been killed as a result of the publication of this dossier and no harm should come to anybody related to this honest work.” (That honest is a red flag, like a politician’s prefacing a statement frankly.) Now, however, Feinstein has released the transcript on Simpson’s demand. My general observation on Simpson, his column, and his story is that they don’t compute.

Quotable quote (page 239): “[D]isinformation is an issue that Chris wrestles with, has wrestled with his entire life. So if he believed any of this was disinformation, he would have told us.”

NOTE: Vanity Fair published what I call the authorized or heroic version of the story behind the dossier in Howard Blum’s Vanity Fair March 30 account “How ex-spy Christopher Steele compiles his explosive Trump-Russia dossier.” Toward the end of his account, on which he seems to have benefited from the assistance of Steele and/or Simpson, Blum writes: “Oleg Erovinkin—a former F.S.B. general and a key aide to Igor Sechin, a former deputy prime minister who now heads Rosneft, the giant Russian oil company, and whose name is scattered with incriminating innuendo through several memos—was found dead in his car the day after Christmas.” I would apply a heavy discount to any such speculation on the cause of mysterious deaths in Russia (and a 100 percent discount to any such allegation in this context), but Erovinkin may well be the guy to whom Simpson’s lawyer was referring. I meant to add this as number 16 to my notes above before I lost my train of thought.

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